Yahoo breaks Godwin's Law
Saturday, Nov 05, 2005
In a few previous posts I've written about the nature of competition between rival dotcom companies, and how I'm surprised when other people fighting the good fight display a decidedly different outlook on the game. I'm not really surprised by this, since everything in the social plane lives on a bell curve and there will always be outliers, whether it's in the form of a Fortune 500 CEO saying "I'm going to fucking kill Google" or a friend whose opinion of Google changed drastically when their job hunt led them to work for another company.

I've been meaning to make a list of the ways Yahoo and Google are similar (not enough parking, central campuses consisting of four large buildings around a sand volleyball court with scattered buildings growing beyond it like little mushrooms, company-centric vanity plates in plastic rah-rah holders) and the ways they're different (single cubes vs bullpens (though I hear this is changing), the levels of physical and organizational hierarchy between the newest employee and the CEO, the comparative roles of user experience and sales). It's hard to keep these lists up to date though, since it's been nearly three and a half years since I left Yahoo to go to grad school, and the landscape -- both inside and outside of the purple walls -- has changed a great deal since that time.

Keeping the above in mind, I've been surprised lately by how different the focus has become at Google and Yahoo. Friends of mine who have interviewed at both Google and Yahoo have commented that Google's interviews focus on how to make better products and better experiences, while Yahoo's interviews are much more tightly focused on 'how to beat Google'.

"Sure," I think. "This has got to be hyperbole." After all, the Yahoo I knew was, while primarily focused on how to turn a profit during the online advertising slowdown of 2001, still generally interested in improving its products and making new products for the sake of increasing reach. There wasn't an enemy to crush (unless it was myway, which suddenly appeared in 2001, sporting Yahoo's layout sans-ads for several properties). Crushing enemies wasn't the point of the exercise.

Maybe it's a startup thing. Maybe a company's point on the scale between idealism and antagonism is proportional to their integral of their success. When you're a young start-up you don't call yourselves a 'Google-killer' or 'Microsoft-killer' even if the press sticks that button to your chest, but somewhere along the way, when the dominant force feels its pedestal may not be as high or as stable as it once was, it starts talking about 'crushing' competitors, be it Microsoft 'crushing' Sun (or Unix, or Google, or any number of legal systems) or Khrushchev 'burying' the United States.

Coming slowly back around to my original point though, while I knew that some Yahoos foam at the mouth to bury the competition I thought this was more a personal thing than a company-driven tactical strategy. Hence my surprise to find that Yahoo has erected a statue in honor of the Yahoo Mail team (that is to say, the Oddpost team) complete with a plaque that reads:

Presented to the Yahoo! Mail Team by the good people of Yahoo! in recognition of tremendous intellectual efforts put forth in order to defeat Gmail.

Not since the code breakers in Britain's Bletchley Park deciphered Germany's Enigma code during World War II has so much brainpower been focused on kicking an enemy's ass.

The Yahoo! Mail Team's bravery, courage, and cumulative intelligence will not soon be forgotten. (At least not until the next version of Yahoo! Mail is released.)

I only wish I were making this up. Yahoo Corporate is rewarding teams by directly comparing their struggle to defeating the Nazis. By the spirit of Godwin's Law, any chance of rational discourse has just gone poof, and Yahoo lost.

Do you think this is going too far? If you're a Yahoo employee interested in rejoining a culture that's honestly more enthused by improving user experience than in trying to bury the competition, drop me a line.*

[* In this, as in all things on this site, I naturally speak for myself and not for Google.]

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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
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